Deadwood? Meet Torchwood: Cowboys and Aliens
Ah, summer. The high season of high concept films, pitched to the Hollywood higher-ups by people who are really, really, high. Hey now! Consider Cowboys and Aliens, the newest film from Iron Man director Jon “Vegas, baby, Vegas” Favreau. The title is the pitch. That’s probably all it took: “Cowboys. Aliens. Daniel Craig. Harrison Ford.” And, BAM! Green-lighted. Done deal. It’s almost eloquent, in its masterful conceptual brevity. OK, there have been precedents, vis a vis the mash-up of the Old West with sci-fi. The Valley of Gwangi is one film that immediately springs to mind-a guilty pleasure from 1969 that featured cowpokes wranglin’ a purple stop-motion T. Rex (Barney with teeth!) for a Mexican circus. Gene Autry’s Phantom Empire movie serial dates all the way back to the 1930s, which has the Singing Cowboy mixing it up with robots and denizens hailing from the underground city of ‘Murania’ (Queen Tika!). Back to the Future, Part III would fit in that theme park. Westworld and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension sort of count. And then there’s…well, others. It would be cheating to include TV, so I won’t mention The Wild, Wild West, the odd Twilight Zone or Star Trek episode, or “Gunmen of the Apocalypse” (Best.Red.Dwarf.Episode.Ever.).
The film opens, appropriately enough, with a Mystery. Actually, it opens kind of like Hangover 3. A rangy 1870s gunslinger (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the Arizona desert with a cauterized wound, an empty holster, a non-removable, anachronistic hi-tech device affixed to his wrist…and amnesia. An absence of empty tequila bottles in the immediate vicinity would appear to indicate that there could be an interesting story behind all this. He isn’t given too much time to ponder, as he (Jake, we’ll call him) is soon set upon by some gamey ruffians with human scalps hanging from their saddles. Sizing up his wound and assuming his unusual bracelet is a kind of shackle, the boys figure Jake might be worth reward money (not only do these fellers spout authentic Western gibberish, but they ain’t none too bright). Imagine their surprise (and Jake’s) when he instinctively springs into action and expertly takes ‘em all out, Jason Bourne style. So we (and Jake) have discovered one thing right off the bat-he’s a badass.
Cut to the requisite “Man with No Name rides into dusty cowtown” Leone homage scene (you thought they’d forgotten?). Meet our crusty yet benign saloon keeper (Sam Rockwell). Say “hey” to our crusty yet benign town sheriff (Keith Carradine…again). And I want to give a special shout out for the preacher man who ain’t afeared to handle a shootin’ iron (Clancy Brown, with his huge Lurch head). And no 1870s cowtown would be complete without its resident posse of drunken asshole bullies, a whoopin’ and a hollerin’ and recklessly shootin’ up the place, led by the spoiled, arrogant son (Paul Dano) of the local cattle baron (Harrison Ford) who “owns” the town. Daddy’s little angel makes quite a scene terrorizing the good townsfolk until Jake decides to take him down a notch. The situation escalates to a point where the sheriff has no choice but to arrest them both. Junior petulantly warns all that his Daddy will be very cross-and he’ll make ‘em all pay. Daddy does eventually ride in, and the whole powder keg is set to explode, when everyone gets sidetracked by an alien invasion (just in time, too-because the attack occurs as they are on the verge of runnin’ plumb out of wild West film clichés).
There’s not much point in synopsizing the remainder of the narrative, because despite the fact that I just saw the movie last night, and it’s allegedly still fresh in my mind, I’ve already forgotten a lot of what happens next. But I don’t think it really matters, in the grand scheme of things. I do remember lots of explosions and gooey strands of fleshy alien viscera hanging off the cacti like so much tinsel on a Christmas Tree. Oh, and there’s something about a magic ring, and the end of the world (no, not really, I’m just checking to see if you’re still paying attention to this ridiculous film review). But if you really must pry (“I must! I must!”), I will tell you that what does ensue is basically a remake of The Searchers, with Harrison Ford’s character standing in for John Wayne, and alien abductors substituting for the Native American kidnappers in John Ford’s film. Oh (he said, attempting to appear casual)…there is the lovely Olivia Wilde, who plays the one person who could possibly help Jake “remember” how he got in the state we found him in at the beginning of the film. To extrapolate further about her character would constitute “spoilers”, so I’ll leave it there. Did I mention Olivia Wilde was in this?
Is it worth seeing? That depends. If you’re a sci-fi “purist” you probably want to steer clear (too many potential tirade-inducing logic holes in the narrative for you Spock types). If you demand coherent story lines in your movies…you might not want to bother either (the film has six credited writers-‘nuff said). But if you’re in a popcorn mood, and ready for big, dumb, loud fun, with lots of action, serviceable special effects and a few decent chuckles-then you may want to take a peek (even if you don’t remember any of it the next day). Cowboys. Aliens. Daniel Craig. Harrison Ford…what more do you want?
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Give me a sign, Lord: Salvation Boulevard
Salvation Boulevard is precisely the type of black comedy cum social satire cum noirish morality play that the Coen brothers really excel at. Unfortunately, the Coen brothers didn’t direct it. Or write it. However, I will hand it to writer-director George Ratliff-it does take a special kind of skill to so effectively squander the potential of a cast that includes Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Connelly, Marisa Tomei and Ed Harris.
Kinnear plays ex-Deadhead Carl, a member of a megachurch who has traded the tie-dye and Thai Stick of hippiedom for the sackcloth and ashes of born-again Christendom. Well, maybe not completely (is there really such a thing as an “ex”-Deadhead?), because you get the impression that his wife Gwen (Connelly) is the one who really wears the piety in the family. Gwen is slavishly devoted to the edicts of the church’s charismatic leader, Pastor Dan (Brosnan), a slick hustler with ambitions to build his own “city on a hill” (more as a monument to himself, than to the Lord-one suspects). Their teen daughter (Isabelle Fuhrman) is apprehensive about Mom’s push to psych her up for taking her “vows” at an upcoming “purity ball”. Meanwhile, malleable Carl just goes with the flow.
One evening, following a televised debate at the megachurch between Pastor Dan and guest speaker Dr. Blaylock (Harris), a famous atheist writer, Carl ends up driving the pastor to the doctor’s home for a nightcap. In the midst of a conversation about the possibilities of the two men co-authoring a book, Pastor Dan accidently shoots Dr. Blaylock in the head while handling an antique pistol (oops!), leaving the writer alive, but in a coma. Carl, of course, wants to do the right thing and call the police immediately; but the silver-tongued pastor persuades him to hold off until they get back to the church (you see what’s coming, don’t you?). Yes, Carl is being set up to be the fall guy-and by the time he realizes it, Pastor Dan (with no shortage of worshipful toadies at his disposal) has the upper hand. No one believes Carl’s side of the story, even Gwen (she chalks it up as a “hallucination”-maybe a relapse to his druggie DFH past). He finally finds a sympathetic ear in a female church security guard (Tomei) who bonds with him as a fellow Deadhead.
Once the pair (seemingly the only two sane and likable characters in the story) hit the highway in a VW van, with the evil heavies from the church in hot pursuit, you would think that you are now in for a darkly amusing “road movie”, chockablock with wacky vignettes fueled by the colorful characters encountered along the way. You would think. But it is at this point in the film that Ratliff (and his co-writer Douglas Stone) make a fatal mistake. Well, two. First, Tomei’s character gets dropped like a rock-which is too bad, because the only time the film really came alive for me was when she was onscreen (as much as I admire her fine dramatic work in recent years, I have always found her to be particularly skillful in comedic roles-she’s sort of our modern Judy Holliday). Secondly, from the moment Carl is abruptly kidnapped by a Mexican drug lord (don’t ask) the whole narrative gets hijacked as well, grinding the entire film to a thudding halt.
It’s been a while since I have found myself remaining so stone faced through a “comedy”. I’m not sure what happened here; but most of the cast (with the exception of Tomei) sleepwalk through the film (and these are excellent, reliable actors). Bad direction? Not enough direction? Weak script? All of the above? Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint. Whatever the root cause, the end product is forced and flat; it’s like a lame network sitcom making a futile attempt to be as hip as, say, Weeds. I had also greatly anticipated the re-pairing of Brosnan and Kinnear, who made a perfect tag team in the 2005 black comedy, The Matador. But alas, it was not to be. Another unpardonable sin-the megachurch phenom is so ripe for a satirical takedown, and that opportunity is blown as well. So I am afraid I have to say: “Praise the Lord and pass the multiplex” on this one.
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